The BSO Holiday Spectacular goes to the dogs

After making a splash on "America's Got Talent," Tony Hoard brings his famous trick dogs to Baltimore

  • Australian shepherd, Rock'n Rory, catches a frisbee thrown by Tony Hoard at the Meyerhoff.
Australian shepherd, Rock'n Rory, catches a frisbee…
December 12, 2010|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

This week at the city's typically sedate Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, there's been much barking, furry things tearing at top speed though the lobby and — don't tell Marin Alsop — a wee puddle in one of the backstage hallways.

Shedding, too. It's pretty safe to say that's also a first for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The BSO is letting its hair down a bit for its annual Holiday Spectacular, which this year prominently features trainer Tony Hoard and his famous show dogs. Any fan of "America's Got Talent" will remember Hoard and Rockin' Rory, who caused a television stir last year by making it to the semifinals, where Rory's high-flying canine tricks left plenty of disappointed singing and dancing humans in his wake.

Though it's the first time four-legged creatures have enjoyed top-billing on a BSO program, orchestra officials are willing to experiment and confident the pups can carry the show.

"We're always trying to keep things interesting here," says Alicia Lin, the symphony's director of operations and facilities.

Plus, it's a pretty Grinchy heart that won't warm to these hard-working tongue-waggers.

"They're adorable and talented," Lin says. "It's hard to resist them. What is not to love?"

That much was clear the other day, watching folks watching the dogs romp through the Meyerhoff as if it were their backyard. Nearly everyone stopped. And nearly everyone smiled.

Hoard drove to Baltimore last week from his home in Indiana with two of his Australian shepherd show dogs, a 10-week-old puppy he's training, and his wife, Sarah. They arrived Monday night, but by Tuesday morning, Hoard had changed into a bedazzling tuxedo and was stationed in the Meyerhoff lobby, showing off some of Rory and Electra Blu's best moves.

The dogs were woofing with excitement as soon as they saw Hoard's pile of Frisbees. Electra couldn't contain herself, running at top speed past holiday displays and ticket counters, the little shoes she wears for traction padding on the red carpet.

When Hoard gave her the signal, though, her pale blue eyes focused right on nothing but him. She weaved through his legs. She flipped in the air. She leaped into his arms. All in lightning-fast succession — and all while catching one Frisbee after another.

"You want to dance?" Hoard asks the 3-year-old.

Apparently she does, because she steps onto his feet to share a little two-step and then stands behind him on her hind legs, her front paws on his hips for a meringue-type move.

Rory is waiting around the corner with Sarah Hoard, whining in anticipation.

"He's all about the Frisbee," Hoard says, when his star pup runs to him. "You're all about it, aren't you, mister?"

The 9-year-old Rory has spent the last six years winning dozens of Frisbee dog competitions and getting network time that certain starlets would envy. Besides "America's Got Talent," he's appeared on "Good Morning America," "Animal Planet," CNN and "The Martha Stewart Show." At the Hoard home in Spiceland, Ind., there's a room where they keep the dog's nearly 400 trophies and ribbons.

The demand for Rory has allowed Hoard, who is 56, to quit the job he held for 24 years: making window shades on a factory assembly line.

"It was the same thing over and over and over all day," he says. "You didn't have a lot to look forward to."

And then one day he saw an ad in a newspaper. Someone wanted to get rid of a dog.

Tony Hoard went to see the pup, who came out of a barn, wandered over to him and then sat between his feet, hardly moving, for 45 minutes.

"He picked me," Hoard says. "I don't know why he picked me but he did. I thank God above for him to do that."

He paid the man $75 and drove home with a dog that would change his life. "Divine intervention" is what Hoard calls it.

They had a connection almost from the get-go. They can read each other. Sometimes, Hoard forgets Rory is a dog.

"He doesn't even know what he's done for me," he says. "Him and I have such a connection together, it's unreal."

And as fast as Rory took to Hoard, he might have taken to tricks even quicker. He'd jump over Hoard, weave between his legs, walk on his hind legs — and Hoard only had to show him once.

On a lark, Hoard signed Rory up for a Frisbee competition. Hoard didn't know until they got there that dogs could only use regulation plastic discs, not the soft, fabric kind Rory played with at home. "It didn't make no difference," Hoard recalls. "We ended up finishing second."

"He was one of those prodigies," Hoard says. "I was like a parent with a gifted child, trying to figure out where to go with them."

Since "America's Got Talent," Hoard, Rory and some of the family's other dogs, like Electra, have toured the United States, appearing at basketball halftime shows, baseball games, expos, conventions and NASCAR events. As of this month, they've got bookings well into next summer.

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